France has hundreds of beautiful places but, in this beholder’s eye, the tiny royal city of Senlis takes pride of place.
It’s tiny because its population is just under 15,000 and you can walk all over it in a couple of hours. It’s royal because it was the capital of Hugh Capet who became the King of the Franks in 987 and bequeathed the place to his descendants.
One of them, his grandson Henri I, married the Kievan Rus’ princess Anna in 1051, turning Senlis into a shrine for those interested in Russian history – and especially those who, like me, were forced to live it in their youth.
Kiev is now the capital of the independent Ukraine, and long may it continue. This long-suffering country has paid for her freedom in blood, spilled throughout history by her powerful neighbours Poland and Russia.
Russia is actually still at it, but that’s a separate subject – as is the fact that the Ukrainians did a fair amount of blood-spilling of their own. That’s still fondly remembered by visitors to Kiev’s Babi Yar, where tens of thousands of Jews were massacred in 1941, mostly by the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police.
Ukrainian patriotism has always been strong, as has been the people’s resentment of both Poland and particularly Russia. Specifically, the artificial famine that in 1932-1933 killed some five million Ukrainians didn’t do much to foster goodwill and neighbourly amity.
Patriotism, however, is a good but dangerous thing. Care must be taken for it not to become jingoism, the mill to which ignorance, stupidity and ideological fervour are the grist. I was reminded of that yesterday, looking at the Senlis statue of Anna erected by the Ukrainian sculptor Vladimir Znoba in 2005.
The inscription on the plinth identifies her as a Queen of France in both French and Ukrainian. That’s fair enough: the sculptor was entitled to use his mother tongue on a statue he gave Senlis as a gift.
However, some fire-eating patriot stuck a Ukrainian flag into Anna’s bronze hand, presumably on the assumption that she was a Ukrainian patriot too. No doubt she would have been, but for a small detail: the Ukraine didn’t exist at the time, and neither did her blue-and-yellow flag.
The word ukraina in its various Slavic versions means ‘outskirts’, an area at the edge of a country. It was first used in the vicinity of today’s Ukraine in 1187 – 102 years after Anna’s death – to describe the strip of land running between Kievan Rus’ and Poland.
As to the flag, it was first unfurled in 1848, making it a fair guess that Anna wouldn’t have recognised its significance. That makes the chap who thus decorated (defaced?) her statue the worst type of blithering idiot, one with an ideology.
Nor is this an isolated case. In 1988, London’s Ukrainian community erected a statue to Anna’s grandfather, Grand Duke Vladimir, identified on the plinth as ‘Ruler of Ukraine’, which word was first heard 229 years after he was born, and which country never really existed even a few centuries later. Vladimir was no more the Ruler of Ukraine than Alaric was the Chancellor of Germany or the Etruscan chieftain Tyrrhenus the Prime Minister of Italy.
Kievan Rus’ has even less to do with either today’s Russia or today’s Ukraine than the Rome of Augustus has to do with today’s Italy or the Athens of Pericles with today’s Greece. A strong magnifying glass could perhaps discern intersecting lines, but they would be tiny, peripheral and smudged.
Anna was a princess of the Scandinavian Rurik dynasty, a descendant of the Vikings (called Varangians in Russia) who in the ninth century established an outpost on the route to Byzantium, where they regularly went for marauding purposes.
When the Byzantines used a most unsporting weapon, called Greek fire, to burn their boats and repel their aggression, the Vikings retreated and settled in Kiev. Over the next two centuries they turned it into one of the most glittering European capitals.
In fact, Henri’s emissaries sent to Kiev to accompany the king’s bride to France had to apologise in advance for the comparative dinginess of French cities. The same held true for Anna and her bridegroom: he was illiterate, while she knew several languages and had even learned French in preparation for her marriage.
Ethnically, Anna was mostly Scandinavian on her father’s side and all Swedish on her mother’s side. A typical Ukrainian ancestry, in other words – at a time when the Ukraine wasn’t even a twinkle in God’s eye. Claiming Kievan Rus’ as a property of either the Ukraine or Russia is ignorance at best and ideological falsification at worst.
A message to the Ukrainians: chaps, my heart goes out to you when a KGB-run Russia pounces on you like a rabid dog. When that happens, I’m prepared to add my voice to the chorus intoning the proud battle cry: Slava Ukraine! (Glory to the Ukraine.)
But there’s neither glory nor dignity in raping history the way Russia rapes her neighbours. Amica Ukraina, sed magis amica veritas